Seton and Society: The Importance of Biographies

On September 17th, our class had the opportunity to talk with Professor Catherine O’Donnell from Arizona State University talk about her upcoming book on Elizabeth Seton. Seton was the first native-born American to be made a saint in the Roman Catholic Church. Born in New York City in 1774, Seton would die in of Tuberculosis in Maryland in 1821 at age 46. She converted to Catholicism after her husband’s death, and founded the United States’ first Catholic school for girls. Seton also established the first American religious order for women, the Sisters of Charity of Saint Joseph’s. Canonized by Pope Paul VI in 1975, Seton was one of the most influential early Catholics in the United States.

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St. Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton (Image Source: St. Elizabeth Catholic Church)

There are challenges in writing a biography of an individual such as Elizabeth Seton. As Prof. O’Donnell noted, Seton’s sainthood makes it difficult to separate the historical from the spiritual. Many saints were important historical figures, but a key element of sainthood is the spiritual element (and in the Catholic tradition, the associated miracles tied to the specific saint). In writing about a saint, one must try to avoid
possible exaggeration about the saint’s life that may exist in historical sources. While
it may be easier to do this for a fairly modern saint like Seton, the risk is still present. Furthermore, the writer would want to remain respectful of the religious faithful and especially of the contemporary followers of the saint. O’Donnell mentioned that she made good use of the Sisters of Charity’s archives and that the sisters were incredibly happy to have a historian doing research on their patron and founder, but she wondered if they would be happy with her finished biography. Walking the line between objective biography and devotional text can be a challenge in writing about saints, especially when writing about an admirable person.

A further challenge in writing about a historical saint is the issue of sources. Taking into mind the possible threat of devoted followers, an additional danger remains in going straight to the source. Looking through Dr. O’Donnell’s writing, she makes great use of Seton’s letters, which are an excellent source. Yet O’Donnell noted the danger of this to us in her talk as she mentioned that Seton seemed to want to paint a picture of herself that had some distinct differences from reality. Seton appeared to have likened herself to a besieged figure surrounded by enemies who hated her for abandoning her Episcopalian faith and becoming a Catholic. Yet O’Donnell notes that the evidence seems to suggest Seton’s family was largely accepting or ambivalent about her faith. They continued to help the widowed Seton and only really ran into trouble with her religious identity when she tried to make it a public matter. O’Donnell also suggests that the amount of anti-Catholic rhetoric Seton faced has likely been exaggerated. Personal letters can serve as an amazing insight into the mind of any historical character. They must be taken with a grain of salt, but are of immense value. Elizabeth Seton’s letters may not give a perfect view of reality, but provide crucial information for the historian not only on her life, but on much broader issues within early 19th century America.

Perhaps one of the unstated challenges of writing about a figure like Seton is that of recognition. I had no knowledge of Seton before reading O’Donnell’s work and had no idea she was a saint. Researching her for this blog, I discovered my lack of knowledge about Elizabeth Seton dates back a few years: in casually searching for information on her, I found a photo of her shrine in New York City. I instantly recognized the building as one I walked by while in the city a few years ago.

File:Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and Rectory 7 State Street.jpg

Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton on 7 State Street across from Battery Park in Manhattan (Image Source: Wikipedia)

At the time, I remember noting how out-of-place the humble church and house looked in Manhattan and wondering what significance it had. I would imagine that many people do not know much, if anything, about Seton – those that do are likely Catholics or somehow related to her spiritual legacy. After learning about Seton, I can see her importance for the early American Church.

The issue remains for historians and writers of being able to take a figure like Seton and promote her to the general public. Some people may be wary of reading a biography of a Catholic saint – it would not be outrageous to suspect the book of being filled with praise for the saint and the Catholic Church. Many may not see the value in reading about a saint beyond the religious element. Yet as Seton’s example shows, there is a much broader importance at work that should draw readers in.

Contemporary oil portrait of Seton (Image Source: St. Peter’s Parish, NYC)

Seton’s role in the formative stages of the American Catholic Church is worth examining. Her position as a convert and zealous promotion of the faith in the newly independent and largely Protestant nation makes her life one of incredible interest for Catholic historians in the United States. Seton’s life provides information on the early Church leadership, the role of foreign priests in the US, the creation of native-born Catholic institutions, and other interesting Catholic issues. As a convert, she can provide a social comparison between the Episcopalian and Catholic social structure at this time, and personal commentary on their differences.

Yet even briefly glancing at Prof. O’Donnell’s work, one gains a sense that Seton’s life has importance beyond the Catholic Church. Her letters can provide important information on the society of early urban America. As the wife of an upper class merchant, Seton saw the socialite elements of NYC and provides commentary on their actions and status. Her economic fall after her husband’s death can provide a primary source on the condition of single mothers or widows in 19th century society. Personally, I found it surprising how often the Seton family had to struggle to avoid homelessness and how generous their family and friends were. Despite struggling to make ends meet, Elizabeth remained a member of New York’s upper society.

Additionally, St. Seton’s life can provide some information on ethnic struggles; her well-recorded life at St. Peter’s Parish in New York shows a church struggling with ethnic struggle between Irish parishioners and French priests. The ethnic conflict is further tied into an ongoing class issue. The ethnic and social struggle (especially related to immigrant Catholics) is one that would only expand over time, and Seton provides some early insight on the issue. Furthermore, Seton’s life can provide social commentary on religion. One of Elizabeth’s main problems seemed to be her overwhelming desire to live in a Catholic society, but being stuck in pluralist New York. She struggles with a society that promotes a private, reserved religious life and her convert’s zeal that pushes her to promote her faith.

Though some of these issues may seem secondary to the story, they serve as a reflection of the broad significance that a study of a character like Seton can provide. Biographies are not simply personal stories self-contained within one life, but rather small case-studies that serves a reflection of the society of the individual as they saw and lived through. Seton is no different (despite being a saint) and her life can provide just as valuable information of contemporary American society as any politician or merchant.

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One thought on “Seton and Society: The Importance of Biographies

  1. Pingback: The Scholar, the Saint, and the Historical Process | Ramonat Seminar 2015

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